United States v. Watts, 519 U.S. 148, 13 (1997) (per curiam)

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Stevens, J., dissenting

confined the exercise of judgment based on a totality of the circumstances. "While the products of the Sentencing Commission's labors have been given the modest name 'Guidelines,' . . . they have the force and effect of laws, prescribing the sentences criminal defendants are to receive. A judge who disregards them will be reversed." Mistretta v. United States, 488 U. S. 361, 413 (1989) (Scalia, J., dissenting).


In 1970, during the era of individualized sentencing, Congress enacted the statute now codified as 18 U. S. C. 3661 to make it clear that otherwise inadmissible evidence could be considered by judges in the exercise of their sentencing discretion. The statute, however, did not tell the judge how to weigh the significance of any of that evidence. The judge was free to rely on any information that might shed light on a decision to grant probation, to impose the statutory maximum, or to determine the precise sentence within those extremes. Wisdom and experience enabled the judge to give appropriate weight to uncorroborated hearsay or to evidence of criminal conduct that had not resulted in a conviction. Even if convinced that a jury had erroneously acquitted a defendant, the judge was not required to ignore the evidence of guilt. At the same time, however, he or she was free to discount the significance of that evidence if mitigating circumstances—perhaps the same facts that persuaded the jury that an acquittal was appropriate—were present. Like a jury in a capital case, the judge could exercise discretion "to dispense mercy on the basis of factors too intangible to write into a statute," Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U. S. 153, 222 (1976) (White, J., concurring in judgment).

Although the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 has cabined the discretion of sentencing judges, the 1970 statute remains on the books. As was true when it was enacted, 3661 does

ment should serve retributive, deterrent, educational, and incapacitative goals).

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